The Bruder Brothers
A SHORT STORY OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
From the pages of the The Forward comes the real lives of struggling immigrants, as described in letters to the editor. In the year 1906, the popular Yiddish newspaper reached more than a half-million Jews struggling to make their way in New York’s Lower East Side. Each week, the paper ran a popular advice column titled—A Bintel Brief.
The column spoke to the thousands of Jews who flocked from Eastern Europe, seeking a new life and freedom from the burgeoning oppression, destined to overtake their homeland. At the same time, it assisted those struggling with their new circumstances, in one of the most overcrowded neighborhoods in the world.
The paper's editor was the renown Abraham Cahan, who offered advice in his column on all kinds of personal problems. The letters provided a fascinating glimpse into Jewish life at the turn of the century, and spoke to the issues central to the common experiences of these immigrants.
The Bruder Brothers is a short story based on one letter written by a young man who impregnates his sweetheart in Warsaw, Poland. He leaves for America with a promise to send for her once he’s settled. But unfortunately, as you will read, his plans are proof of the idiom—Be careful what you wish for.
I’ve selected this interesting letter, and took the liberty of adding a fictional backstory and particulars to the lives of the participants. I hope you enjoy my tale from A Bintel Brief. - Neil Perry Gordon
The Bruder Brothers
I marveled at the fierce waters of the Vistula river, and wondered if the gushing of tears streaming down Ruth’s cheeks, where the cause of its ferocity.
“Are you sure?” I managed to squeak out from my pitiful mouth.
Ruth lifted her arms into the air, shook her hands like bees were stinging them and said, “Tell me Ira, what did you think would happen?”
I leaned forward and buried my face into my sweating palms, and wondered, How did I get myself into this mess?
As I looked up, a couple walked by. They shot us a sideways glance, then shared a whisper, apparently amused by our troubles.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” Ruth demanded. I shrugged, shook me head, and immediately regretted my lack of an answer, because Ruth exploded with a waterfall of tears that I feared would push the cresting river to overflow its embankment. “Listen my love, my brother Abraham is sending me a ticket for America in a few weeks and when I get there, I’ll start earning money. Once settled you’ll come, and then we’ll marry,” I said reaching to settle her shaking hands.
“How can you leave me, Ira?” she asked goggle-eyed. “What if I have the baby before you send the ticket? Who will take care of me?”
I held out my hands, thinking of the obvious, and said, “Your mother?”
Ruth sobbed in short, sharp bursts. “Sure, just wait until I tell my parents. Giving birth without a husband. Such a scandal!”
Our families, the Bruders and the Rosensweigs lived in the same building. Ruth and I had known each other since we were toddlers and grew up playing together. Our adolescent games eventually evolved into hot teenage passion, which in turn lead us into our current predicament.
From my seat on the train heading for Hamburg, I waved farewell to Ruth as she stood, slumped up against her mother. One hand cupped her still flat belly, as a way to remind me of her condition, and the other hand, patted away her tears with a moist-looking hanky.
As the train pulled from the station, my palm remained pressed flat against the window, and I sighed. Not from sadness, but from relief, knowing I would finally get a break from her incessant whining.
I traveled by land to the Port of Hamburg, then by sea onboard the steamship SS Amerika. After two weeks of being stuck in the sweltering bowels of steerage, I arrived in New York Harbor on a warm summer day in July of 1906.
My brother Benjamin was waiting for me when I emerged through the doors from the immigration inspection station at Ellis Island. With his towering size, it was easy spotting him in the crowd of people waiting for the new arrivals. I pushed my way through dozens of family reunions and pairs of lovers embracing after months, or possibly years of being apart. When I finally reached my brother, he offered me a handshake instead of a hug, which I awkwardly accepted.
“You’re finally here Ira, I can’t believe my eyes,” he said.
My brother had arranged a job for me, working as a busboy at busy restaurant on Grand Street. It seemed like a good place to work, and I was able to eat for free by squirreling away people’s leftovers into my jacket pockets, and sneaking them home for my dinner at the end of my shift.
I must confess, during those first few weeks in America, I hardly thought about Ruth. Life was good and full of excitement. Abraham and I frequented taverns and met up with fun loving ladies, keeping us out all night.
During those hot summer nights, we slept on the roof with dozens of men, women, and children. The cool breeze that swept down Hester Street was delightful, as compared to the oppressive heat of our windowless room on the tenement building’s fourth floor.
On one of these nights, I pulled out a letter I received earlier that day.
Ben jerked his chin toward me and asked, “What you reading?”
I put it down on my lap, adjusted myself to sit taller against the back of the wooden façade wrapping the rooftop, and answered, “It’s from Ruth. She’s wondering when I’m going to send her a ticket.”
“Again Ira? You need to tell her, once and for all, you don’t have the money,” Benjamin said loud enough for a few people still awake to look our way.
“But she’s pregnant with my child, and you’re going to be an uncle,” I said with a smile.
Benjamin flipped his hand in disgust, and rolled himself away from me. Moments later he was snoring. While he slept, I held the letter under the light of the full moon and read.
My dearest fiancé, As much as I tried, it is no longer possible to hide my pregnancy from the neighbors. This has caused unspeakable shame to Mother and Father. Every day they ask if you are sending me a ticket for America, and all I can answer is, not yet. Father says that I cannot continue to live with them under the same roof as an unwed mother. I'm frightened, and if you do not send a ticket soon, I will be forced out onto the street and need to fend for myself. I'm sure you wouldn’t want me or your unborn child to face such unspeakable consequences.
Ira, if you love me, please save me. I’m desperate.
All my love, Ruth
Three words caught me by surprise, causing me to smile. She wrote, if you love me. Why would she say if? Was she giving me a way out of this mess? I thought about the word and realized that perhaps I didn’t love her anymore. Maybe I never loved her. After all, our relationship was based on a childhood fascination that got carried away with our adolescent impulses.
I folded the letter, stuck it in my pocket and after a few hours of tossing and turning, I fell asleep next to my brother who was snoring so loud, I think people on the rooftop across the alleyway heard him.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt the effect of her words tugging at my conscience. So, with the intent of relieving my guilt, I decided to write back.
Dear Ruth, I’ve read your letter and I’m shocked at the reaction from your parents. How could they be so cruel as to threaten to send you out on your own, into the dangerous streets of Warsaw. Tell them to have patience and know that I am working hard here in America. And please understand that a ticket for a steamship is not cheap. Perhaps they can buy your passage and you can come sooner?
Know this, I am thinking of you often, and can’t wait for our reunion and the birth of our child.
I decided not to sign off the letter with the obligatory—All my love. I thought this would soften the blow, and we would hopefully drift apart. But her next letter that arrived from her a few weeks later was indeed a surprise.
My dearest fiancé, What I had feared most has happened. Father has forced me out of our home and onto the street, seven months pregnant. Mother tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t back down saying he has been publicly humiliated and shamed. I’m living in a woman’s shelter and I’m frightened. Why have I not heard from you since your last letter over a month ago? I cannot believe you would abandon me and your unborn child in a time of great need. Please, I’m begging you. Send for me now! I cannot give birth in this hideous place with these strangers. I am scared Ira, and need you now more than ever. All my love and devotion, Ruth
I showed the letter to my brother, and asked, “What should I do?” He read it, crumbled it into a ball and tossed it into the street where it rolled under a pushcart selling pickles on Grand Street. “Forget about her. She’s a world away. Do you really want to be burdened with a wife who nags you to death, and a baby who cries all night? I know I don’t.” I nodded, thinking he was right. Maybe if I ignored her letters, she would just disappear.
A few weeks later, I got the letter that gave me hope that my nightmare was indeed ending.
My dearest Ira, I have sad news to share with you. Last night while showering in the facilities of the women’s shelter, one of the other girls began screaming and pointing at me. “There’s blood,” she shouted. I looked down and saw to my horror, blood streaming down my legs and mingling with the soapy water puddling on the tile floor. I called for help and was brought to the hospital.“Please tell me what’s happening,” I pleaded to the nurse who attended me. She told me to lie still, and the doctor would soon examine me. Well, my dear Ira, I am sorry to say, that our baby was delivered stillborn - dead. I don’t know what will become of me. My poor child is gone and I am homeless. My only hope is that you will pity me and bring me to America. My sadness consumes me. You’re my only hope. Please do not abandon me,
All my love, Ruth
When I showed the letter to Benjamin he put his hands to his mouth in order to hide a smile and said, “I’m sorry Ira. But this is good news. You’re free of her.”
I nodded and was pleased to agree with him. Perhaps this was the end?
Later that same year, Benjamin and I went into the trucking business. We started with a horse drawn cart and two years later we were operating a 1906 Cadillac delivery truck with the name of our business painted on its side in large gold letters—Bruder Brothers Trucking Company.
We earned good money allowing us to move out of the congested tenement building and into a nicer two bedroom apartment with windows and a bathroom.
One afternoon, while enjoying a cup of tea and reading a book, there was a knock at the door. Being home alone, I stood up from the chair and went to see who was there. A strange, shivering chill ran down my spine. I didn’t understand the cause of this sensation, until I opened the door and saw Ruth standing before me. She was half the girl I remembered. Staring at me was a frail person, with dark-circled eyes, and a thin, time-worn dress hanging off boney shoulders.
“Hello Ira. It’s me Ruth.” I shook my head, and took a step back. “Ruth, what are you doing here?” “I’ve made it,” she said, stepping around me and into the apartment. She carried two canvas bags, one in each hand. When she reached the center of the apartment she dropped them with a thud. “How in the world did you find me?” I asked, with my mouth slung open. “I thought that was going to be your first question. Not, Ruth, are you well? Or how did you get here?”
I shrugged and muttered, “Sorry.”
“You want to know how I found you? Your damn name is on that fancy truck running up and down Grand Street all day. It wasn’t hard tracking you down.”
I scratched the back of my neck, “But why are you here?”
“Ira, I’m your fiancé and promised myself to you,” she said with an attempt of sounding dignified.
“But you lost the baby,” I said pointing to her flat belly.
“That doesn’t change your responsibility. I have been exiled from my family and my community. No man would have me now, except for you. I can marry no other.”
The door swung open and in walked Benjamin who immediately grimaced at the sight of Ruth. “Don’t tell me, is this is her?” he said, slamming down his newspaper on the kitchen table.
“This charming man must be your brother Benjamin.”
Ignoring the comment, Benjamin continued to wag his finger, and said “She’s not staying here, Ira.”
I gestured with outstretched arms and open palms, “But she has nowhere else to go.”
Benjamin walked up to me and poked his finger deep into my cheek and said, “I’ll give you until tomorrow to figure out what to do with her. But when I come home, she better be gone.”
Later that night as Ruth slept in my bed, I sat at the kitchen table, looking out onto Hester Street and wondered what to do with her. She didn’t look well, and I couldn’t in my right mind send her out into the world alone. But I knew I didn’t love her, nor wanted to marry her. I needed someone to tell me what to do.
I looked down and saw lying on the table the newspaper that Benjamin had slammed down earlier. It was the Jewish newspaper called The Forward, and I remembered the advice column within called A Bintel Brief. Desperate people wrote letters to the editor of the newspaper, the well-respected Abraham Cahan, asking for his sage-like advice.
So I took a sheet of paper and a fountain pen from the desk and wrote my letter. It took nearly a week before I saw it printed. During that time Ruth lived with us. There was really no choice, even with Benjamin’s insistence. “I hear that people get wise answers from the editor. Let’s wait and see what he says,” I pleaded to my brother.
On the morning of September 10th, my letter and the editor's reply was published.
Actual published letter:
September 10, 1906
Worthy Editor, I am confident that you will publish my letter in the Bintel Brief column, just as you have others. Please give me good advice, and I assure you that I will act accordingly.
Five years ago, when I was a youth of eighteen years old, I became close with our neighbor’s daughter, a girl of about my same age, whom I had known since childhood. Living in the same building and always being together, we fell in love with a childish passion. Our love grew increasingly stronger and more intense, and our relationship became too close. As a result, we got carried away.
We used to take walks on the outskirts of town, along the riverbank near the woods. Once, as we sat there, she told me she was to become a mother. This made me despair. Only then did we begin to consider our deed; only then did we begin to take into account what we had done. But it was already too late. I consoled her by saying that I was expecting a ship’s ticket from my brother in America and that as soon as I arrived there, I would send for her. Soon, my ticket arrived, and I departed with a sad heart and with much regret.
Now, not being close to my beloved, I realized my big mistake. Now, I felt that I did not love her. Now I understood that it was just a passionate attraction devoid of love. Nevertheless, I left with the determination that as soon as I arrived in New York, I would try to get the money from my brother, bring her over, and marry her. Upon arriving here, I told my brother about my situation with the girl and asked him to loan me the money to bring her here, assuring him that I would pay him back with interest.
My crying and beseeching were of no help. He yelled at me to knock this foolishness out of my head.
I got letters from her relating her desperate situation, being forced to leave her parents and wandering about far from home. Later she shared with me that she delivered a stillborn child.
In the beginning, I used to answer her letters immediately, but later, seeing that I could not help her, and feeling no love towards her, I wrote more seldom until I stopped altogether and tried to forget her. On the occasions when my conscience bothered me, I tried with all my might to suppress these feelings. And this is how three years passed.
One day, I was shocked to find her standing upon my doorstep. I saw her in body, but of my former beloved there was hardly anything to recognize—before me stood a skeleton with dull eyes in which one could see a sea of troubles. It was obvious that three years of exile from her parents and friends wounded her. You can imagine how this meeting affected me.
Now she demands that I marry her. She insists that I am responsible for her. Under the circumstances, she thinks that she has no chance of marrying anyone else. And if she were to marry someone else, she would never be happy. Given her history, she would always feel like a condemned convict, and if her husband were to find out, he would abandon her. I am the only one she can marry.
I however, do not love her, and if I marry her, I will be unhappy my entire life.
But my conscience torments me, knowing that because of me she was driven out of her parent’s home, because of me she suffered, because of me she became despondent, lost her youth and self-worth. And I cannot decide what to do. Should I marry her and condemn myself to a loveless existence for a sin I committed when I was not yet mature? Or should my conscience be consoled by the fact that she was an equal partner in our deed and that my sin is no greater than hers? I do not deserve a life-long sentence for her suffering.
So, please advise me what to do. I would like to handle the situation as an honorable man, but I do not know how.
— A Reader
I placed the paper down and took a breath. My letter was published in The Forward, the largest Jewish newspaper in New York City. It was said that hundreds of thousands of immigrants read the paper every day.
Even though the letters to the editor were anonymous, my plight was now common knowledge among the massive Yiddish speaking population. It was my spicy dilemma adding to their daily gossip sessions for the men and woman who sat along the rows of benches on the Grand Street promenade.
But what I really cared about at that moment, was the response from the editor.
Actual published response:
Dear Reader The writer, as it appears from the letter, is a man of conscience and feeling. We believe that in the very least he should do everything in his power to help the young woman achieve independence. Naturally, it is true that given the customs and attitudes of our times, such a woman is likely to have difficulties were she to marry. If someone who was willing to take her and found out about her past, a tragic drama could ensue. It would be much better if she were to present herself to the world as a divorcée.
- The Editor
The first line where the Editor said that I was a man of conscience and feeling elated me. But the rest of his reply confused me, especially the last line—It would be much better if she were to present herself to the world as a divorcée.
Just as I pondered the possible meaning, the apartment door opened and in walked Benjamin and Ruth. If I was confused by the editor’s words, I was doubly confused by seeing these two together.
“What’s going on?” I asked placing the newspaper down. “Oh you mean because we walked in together?” My brother said gesturing to the door. I nodded with a furrowed brow. “We just ran into each other on the sidewalk. I was coming from the garage and Ruth was out food shopping.” I looked over to Ruth who was unpacking vegetables from her canvas bag and offered me a gentle smile. Satisfied, I picked up the newspaper and pointed to the article and announced, “My letter was published.” “Oh let me see,” Ruth said, leaning over my shoulder. “He says you should present yourself as a divorcee, as that might offer you some sort of redemption for society to accept,” I said. “Oh, let’s not worry about this now,” Ruth said, as she walked back into the kitchen.
One week later, I was shocked to see a published response to my letter to the Editor. Apparently, there were sixty-eight people who met regularly in a park to discuss and debate A Bintel Brief. They managed to organize their thoughts into a single opinion letter and sent it to the editor.
Actual published letter:
October 10, 1906 Worthy Editor, We, a group of sixty-eight people who meet in a park to debate various topics. Someone read a letter that appeared in the Forward on Monday, September 10. We debated the letter and your response for nearly three hours, and after a vote of sixty-three to five, we can submit our opinion.
A boy of eighteen fell in love in Poland with a girl his own age. And because of their “childish feelings,” she was to become a mother. She shared this with him, and in a short while he left for America, promising to bring her over. And here, lacking the means, he eventually stopped writing her. During this period he received two letters from her. In the first, she wrote that her parents threw her out of the house, that her friends and close acquaintances distanced themselves and that she was wandering about among strangers. In the second, she writes that she gave birth to a stillborn child. But he still did not answer her. Three years later, she comes to America. As he himself described, how she looked, stones should scream, let alone people with feeling.
Now, she was asking him to marry her. He said:“I do not know what to do. I do not love her. I will be miserable.” His justification was that he was a child, but she was also guilty! Taking all this into account, we can say the following: That he does not love her is a minor issue because, if he is a person of feeling, he will learn to love her first as a woman and later as the mother of their children. Let’s assume he were to wed through a marriage broker; he could not love her because he would not yet know her. Typically, love would follow later. If he is a man of feeling as he represents himself, he should consider what he has done to her! What will become of her? What is in her future? Suicide or a house of shame? He defends himself by saying: “I am not the only guilty one.”
She was no younger than I, and she agreed to this. I was also a child then.” One must laugh bitterly at his defense—a child of eighteen. “She also shares the guilt in this.” True, we agree. But he should read what he himself wrote, how she struggled in Poland, how she looked, how she suffered. It seems that even Tsar Nicholas would not mete out a harsher punishment.
And he can allow himself to say: “I cannot marry her.” Then to whom should he be compared? What should she do now? Marry? Whom? We agree with the editor’s suggestion that she represent herself as a divorcée, but she would have to find a man on an island with no people. If she were to marry where there are people, it would be impossible for the husband not to find out eventually.
We have plenty of “good” people who love to tell of such things. But what if the husband was to find out after there were a couple of children involved? What would become of them, of him, of her? To destroy a woman and then give her a few dollars to make it easier for her to fool a person for a short time is dishonest.
In the name of fifty-three socialist workers, with no less compassionate hearts, we say: Marry her and you will be happy, even more than happy!
As for his brother, we can say the following: If he were capable of saying, “Do not think of her,” then anything we could possibly say would be more than he deserves! We conclude with the hope that you will live happily together.
— Volunteer writer
Actual editor’s response:
There is no need to respond to this letter. Our opinion on this matter has already been stated. If the young man were to marry willingly and compassionately, as the writers advise him, it would have been best, of course.
Furthermore, your premise that “a person of feeling will surely learn to love after the wedding” does not conform to life experience. There would be far fewer family tragedies if every man “who is a mensch” were to learn to love his wife after the wedding, and she him. We must also emphasize the fact that interesting letters of the Bintel Brief engender earnest discussion. The author of this letter is an intelligent man, and the interest of intellectuals in these important life-questions is one of the reasons the Bintel column is such a success.
While it felt exciting to see my words in print within the prestigious newspaper, the editor’s advice offered no practical guidance. Instead, our regular customers were able to figure out that it was me who wrote the letter, and started asking embarrassing questions.
To my surprise, my brother didn’t seemed to be bothered in the least. He dismissed it with a flip of his hand and said, “Who cares what they think. It’s none of their business.”
“But it is our trucking business, Benjamin. This is hurting our reputation,” I insisted. “So marry her and be de done with it.” “I can’t marry her if I don’t love her,” I explained.
In the meanwhile Ruth was cooking, cleaning and doing our laundry. It was nice having her around. She even stopped badgering me about marrying her, which was a relief.
All of this went on for a few weeks and I soon noticed a change in Benjamin’s relationship with Ruth. Instead of his relentless, belligerent attitude toward her, his tone softened and became pleasant, to the point where I enjoyed our three-way camaraderie and happy life together.
One day while out making deliveries, I remembered a funny story of when Ruth and I got ourselves in trouble back when we were children in Warsaw. I thought it was interesting that I was recalling positive memories of our life together, and realized that maybe I still had feelings for her. So I decided that I would surprise her and stop by the apartment to share the memory.
I bounded up the stairs, two at a time, anxious to see her. I fumbled with my keys for a moment and then charged into the apartment.
“Ruth, I was driving the truck, when...” I paused because Ruth wasn’t in the room. I heard some noise from the Ben’s bedroom. Ah, she must be cleaning, I thought and opened the door. There they were—my brother and my fiancé in bed, making love.
I shook my head hoping that would magically correct what I was seeing. “Get the hell out,” yelled Benjamin, as he pulled up the blanket to cover their naked bodies. “What are you doing Ruth? I thought you loved me.” I said, not believing the words coming out of my desperate mouth. Benjamin pointed his finger at me and demanded, “Out now, Ira!” I ran from of the apartment and sat in the truck parked out on Hester Street. Tears filled my eyes thinking how I caused Ruth such sadness and struggles that she didn’t deserve. All she ever wanted was to love me, take care of me and raise our children. Now she was in bed with my brother and I assumed they were now in love.
I thought about writing another letter to the editor, describing how my predicament turned out. But I feared that people would read it and think me a fool. They would ask why would a woman dare to travel alone, across a great ocean to an unknown land, in order to be with a man who rejected her?
Ruth was a good woman and would have been a good wife. But I didn’t deserve her, this much was true.
Looking back now, I should have seen the obvious signs. The most significant was the softening of Benjamin’s attitude toward Ruth during the time all three of us lived together.
But I cannot blame either of them. I did make it plain that I didn’t love Ruth, and would never consider marrying her, and on top of all that, our history together would have been a huge obstacle to overcome.
If Benjamin and Ruth do decide to marry, they will have a better chance of being happy then Ruth and I would. I wish them nothing but good luck and many healthy children and look forward to becoming a loving and supporting uncle.
But on the other hand, my brother does have a short temper that Ruth may soon grow tired of. Perhaps I will bide my time and be kind to her, just in case.